Thursday, May 21

Well, That Sounds Like A Really Good Explanation. Now, If You Don't Mind, Just What Was It?

William Saletan, "The Two Faces of Barack Obama: Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?" May 20

MY own faith is such that I believe there is floating in the aether some spectral Reverse Godwin Sphere where the souls of people who really deserved to be compared to Hitler, but weren't, receive their comeuppance, while a Host of Cheetos-stained spirit nerds type LMFAO simultaneously and their sound is like a million thunderclaps.

Which is not what Saletan deserves--though I am beginning to pine for a Godwin declaring an argument forfeited the moment the writer appends himself to Barack Obama and declares the two of them Good and Thoughtful--but he does force us into mentioning something we'd just as soon skip but which seems to be the only thing some people understand: an incremental, "compromise" position, designed to reflect the "complexity" of an issue ignored by "absolutists", signed on to by muddling middlers and approved of by no one, is precisely the road to racial equality favored by the NAACP, and explicitly rejected by the SCLC, beginning in Birmingham. And it's not Roy Wilkins' birthday that's a national holiday. Yes, the NAACP approach brought us Brown. What the convenient history conveniently leaves out these days is that Brown brought us a decade of closed Southern schools. The 3/5 Compromise seemed like a complex rendering of an issue whose Manichaean combatants could never be brought to Reason, too.

I say again: I'd rather not bring it up this way. (We could, rather, make it Iraq, 2002, and run down the Slate masthead ticking off those who said things like "we can't take the chance that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons" or "Well, I don't trust the Bush administration, but in this case..." which has the added benefit, for me, that it doesn't look like I'm trying to shine in Martin Luther King's reflected glory. You couldn't walk under a tree in those days without risking having a "liberal", ripe with complexity and nuance, fall on your head.) Certainly it is possible for people whose position on reproductive rights is diametrically opposite mine to advance the same argument. And, y'know what? So be it. It's still preferable to facile dishonesty masquerading as the point of view of anyone who's being reasonable.
"Obama Calls for 'Common Ground' on Abortion at Notre Dame," said the headline at CNN. That's a fair description: The president used the phrase three times in his Sunday commencement address. But common ground can't quite convey what he was getting at. Common ground is a two-dimensional metaphor. Abortion is more complicated than that, and so is Obama.

"We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief," the president told the graduates. "In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family." That's a standard American theme: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

Within the United States, there's been a long-running fight over what this idea means. One view says we're a melting pot and immigrants should assimilate. Another view says diversity is a right and should be protected. Which view does Obama take? Both. Here and abroad, he sees a single family with a variety of beliefs.

Are we headed anywhere in particular, or is this just to test whether we get carsick?

Sheesh, who doesn't acknowledge "a variety of beliefs"? It's kinda hard to miss, what with all the screaming and the skywriting and all. And how many people don't simply adjust their view of "E Pluribus Unum" according to which side of the hill their own cattle happen to be grazing? And so what? It's possible to acknowledge a diversity of opinion while still concluding all the others are flat wrong. In fact, it's common to do so, and necessary. It's just that most people don't use this as an excuse to pretend they're mining "Novus Ordo Saeclorum" for nuggets. But then, most people aren't paid by the word.
Is this a cop-out? In two-dimensional space, it looks that way: You have to pick one side or the other. But what if the issue you're debating is really multidimensional? What if there's more than one other side? What if the alternative view you're grappling with isn't the negation of yours? What if it's a different perspective, a sideways view, on the same reality? Can both perspectives be true?

Most political issues are like that. To depict them fairly, you need extra dimensions. My favorite representation of this concept is the carved cube on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach. Is it a G, an E, or a B? Answer: all of the above. It depends which way you look at it.

I'm with Oscar Levant. I'd omit them.

Okay, so you're not the only man in America who spent too much time reading sci-fi as a teenager, but I have a hard, fast rule I'd like to share with you. It's one of the few that's never let me down: Never take advice on Art from a math major, and never listen to an English major who's turning some half-grasped mathematical concept into a Guide for Living. I mean, is this another one of those Slate articles that was assigned using blind draws from the magnetic poetry set? " Run with that, Bill. Thirteen-hundred words. I've got two Cs here say you can't."
Abortion is the classic multidimensional issue. Years ago, when I was writing a book about it, one person after another told me, "The issue is about …" Each person ended the sentence differently.

Okay. Fine. I'll just talk to myself, then.

I hope this doesn't blow your mind, Bill (" a...cosmic...torus") but in 2009 America, saying "abortion is more complex than the absolutists admit" is actually taking a side. And, in fact, it's taking the side which has the burden of compelling its opponents to agree to a discussion, let alone accept some "compromise" scribbled down while you were on Ecstasy. Y'see, number one, I'm fine with Roe. I'm fine with Casey. I'm no constitutional scholar, but I'm fine with the idea of an inherent Right to Privacy. I'm fine with the idea that any notion that "Life" begins before birth is an irredeemable metaphysical tangle, unconstitutionally vague, and at least 98% certain to violate the Establishment Clause, not that proponents don't routinely try to take the Wite-Out to that as well. Constitutional precedent essentially sides with me, and this has held true for forty years of shameless demagogy on the issue. What's my reason for sitting down and listening to people scream their complaints again? (I've had 'em in both ears at once, Bill, as a chaperone for young, frequently terrified women who were simply trying to exercise their right, under the Constitution and English common law, to decide whether they'd carry a pregnancy to term.)

I'm supposed to abandon some unspecified portion of my beliefs why? Because there are nuts out there who won't shut up otherwise? They aren't going to shut up, ever, regardless. Because there are moral principles involved? Same with the death penalty, same with incarceration for victimless crimes, same with outspending the rest of the world combined on the implements of our "defense", which we now define as preemptively removing governments that once took a shot at our Daddy. Overpopulation and laying waste to the environment are moral issues, too. Who's dropped their bullhorns to listen to me on those issues, Bill?

Barack Obama ran for President, Bill. I didn't. Barack Obama, presumably, believes he can talk to 2000-year-old zombie Jewish carpenters who might never have existed. Me, not so much. He may have some reason to seek a rapprochement with the one-issue crazies on the other side, or he may have an interest in cutting the herd down some, or maybe he just wants to shut Ross Douthat up for a minute. 'S his business, not mine. He's not going to walk out on the WH portico and announce he's decided to overturn Roe, and he's not going to call in all the "reasonable" people this summer and do more than give 'em a big dose of platitude. That's how it is. I don't have a problem with it, but then I don't have a problem with those people screaming their lungs out until Doomsday, either.

Which is, really, my point. Fuck polls, and certainly fuck one that substitutes "Do you consider youself pro-life?" for the actual question, then uses that to a) draw conclusions; and b) give you an excuse for jetting off to Cloudland for 350 words. It means nothing. Reproductive rights are Constitutionally protected, and they will remain so unless you a) amend the Constitution or b) overturn Roe before the Court. We have certainly experienced some risk of the latter, another little pile of stepped-in dogshit from thirty years of Republican rule, but what that would mean, and how it would play out remains moot. It's highly unlikely you would see the day when Roe was tossed on the ash heap, and if you did the fight would simply continue after the teams switched jerseys. No, sir; the issue is not the "multi-dimensional" cosmic nail biter you portray. The issue is Roe. Confound the legal argument, or don't, but leave me the fuck alone until you do.

And one more thing: much of this comes from absorbing the loaded arguments which have been going on since you were in knee pants, and that because an explicitly religious viewpoint with influence beyond its actual numbers has been ceded the high ground in the mass-market Press, to the extent that they've even dictated the language: Pro-abortion, Pro-life, "unborn child". The anti-reproductive freedom, pro-state-control-of-the-uterus crowd (you like them apples? they're not my own, or exactly rare, but they're rarely seen outside Left Blogtopia) has gotten away with avoiding the issue of contraception (until the Bush administration got overconfident). It's gotten away with never addressing the issue of homicide, despite the fact that every third word is "murder". It's gotten away with portraying the violence and murder committed in its name as being a matter of fringe crazies. It's never called on the network of deceptive "Crisis pregnancy centers", nor on the fact that what it is doing, at the core, is attempting to deny a certain class of Americans their Constitutional rights, often by whatever means. Had the debate merely been fair for the last forty years we might already see a very different atmosphere, though no one who takes a serious glance at the State Owned Uterus Crusaders could ever imagine that those people will be placated by any possible "compromise".

Here's an experiment for you. Go among the Holiest of Holies and the Demiest of Demagogues and try to tell them that Abortion was perfectly legal, openly practiced, even advertised, until after the Civil War. See what diversity of opinion you get then. Were you aware of that yourself? The issue has been gamed, Bill, and "reasonable compromise" is just an arrow in the anti-choice quiver. It may be that you inhabit a world where such questions never arise, but it's inexcusable to pretend it couldn't, and to portray people who've fought seriously, and long, to protect the individual's right to choose as intractable fanatics incapable of your keen moral insights and nuanced understanding.


Uncle Omar said...

Riley, do you want to borrow my bat to hit him with after yours breaks?

Kathy said...

"common ground" being the fact that nearly everybody wants to stop abortions, or minimize the number of them. The Lib way is to use contraception. But the anti-abortionist are opposed to that as well. Apparently it isn't abortion they want to stop, it's SEX.

Vivek said...

Christ, not only is he an idiot when he's actually trying to make his point, but he clearly doesn't understand the concept of a dimension. If you're just picking one side or the other, it's either one or zero dimensions, depending on whether you're willing to grant the existence of degrees, which of coure Saleton isn't, since there's 1) absolute pro-life, 2) absolute pro-choice, 3) his "reasonable" position, which is of course also the only morally correct one. Wanker.

Anonymous said...

The anti-reproductive freedom, pro-state-control-of-the-uterus crowd (you like them apples? ...)"

One I've seen that seems pretty blunt is "anti-woman".

Rugosa said...

I wish pro-choicers would emphasize your point about abortion having been legal until after the Civil War. Illegalizing abortion was part of the rising medical profession's movement to drive women away from control of birth. If women can't control their reproduction, they can't control their lives.

Anonymous said...

I come around here to read rational argument. It is unbelievably refreshing to read it. American news was never rocket science level (science reporting egregiously so, but that's another can of worms), but it has gotten so amazing puerile over the last 20 years I cannot bear to partake of anything more than headlines.

I know the Why of that - ratings (aka ad dollar pull) are based on audience size, and the Suits have decided that Stupid People need to be included in the public discourse, for demographic as well as drama-tainment reasons. But the Founding Daddies made their original club pretty exclusive for a reason: democracy is its pure form is spelled M-O-B. People with sense need to be making the rules, even if you can't advertise that fact explicitly lest Stupid People get their widdle feelings hurt.

We're past that now, and that key lesson has been lost. It's bread and circuses all the way down now. Enjoy the bonfires!

Narya said...

I think we need to start calling the supposed "sides" to this issue the "pro-choice" side and the "pro-forced-pregnancy" side.

You don't want an abortion? Then don't get one. See how neatly that choice thing works?

jackd said...

It's maybe rude of me to point out that Godel, Escher, Bach isn't science fiction, since you didn't explicitly say that, but one could certainly read your paragraph that way. It's actually a bunch of essays and related writing on logic and form which I never finished.

Brendan said...

Man, I love to watch you smack Saletan around. It's the only worthwhile purpose he serves on this planet -- to be your punching bag.

dg said...

"...Godel, Escher, Bach isn't science fiction ... It's actually a bunch of essays and related writing on logic and form which I never finished."

Which no one ever finished. So fucking brilliant that about two thirds through you just can't care enough to go on. The guilt lingers for years.

And I've got a Jackson that says Saletan didn't finish it either.

JMC said...

The Common Folk of America R Confused: From the New Yorker article on Justice Roberts (25 May): "An originalist on abortion would say that at the time of the Constitution, or of the adoption of the 14th Amendment, abortion was prohibited, and that's it," (quoting a professor at Yale).

Mr Riley sez: "Abortion was perfectly legal, openly practiced, even advertised, until after the Civil War."

The Wikipedia entry for "Abortion in the United States" appears to support Mr Riley. Does this mean Scalia can be kicked off the Court?

Anonymous said...

I've flogged this so often in comments from here to Digby that I ought to be getting some kind of fee, but I recommend a book called "Hellfire Nation" by a U. of Rhode Island prof of political science named James Morone. You can learn therein (among many other things) how abortion politics were all wrapped up in the "purity" crusades of the latter 19th thru early 20th centuries.

Morone's central theme is the everlasting seesaw between repressiveness and liberalism that has characterized American social and political history since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It's a fun read, too -- which is a good thing, since the inevitable conclusion is that there's no conclusion, and certain personality types (like mine) tend to find the prospect of eternal strife a downer. But so goes it.

Li'l Innocent